Christmas Puppies


When I was working in London, January through to March was always one of my busiest times for puppy classes. These first few months of the year nearly always saw me more than double the number of classes I ran to cope with demand.

The reason? Christmas puppies!

Every year, the dog world appeals to people not to buy puppies for Christmas. And we’re not being curmudgeonly, I swear! We’ve just heard too many heart-breaking stories about the fate of Christmas puppies, and the older dogs who are often abandoned to make space for a newer, cuter replacement. Yet the demand for puppy classes in the New Year shows that Christmas is still a really popular time to buy puppies.

So, what sort of thing should you consider if you are thinking about a Christmas puppy?

Where will your puppy come from?

As a dog trainer, I know about the Christmas puppy rush. Guess who else knows? Puppy farmers. They try to cash in on the demand, and if people are in a rush to buy a puppy in time for Christmas, the risks of them falling foul of an unscrupulous puppy farmer are higher. There are lots of really good guides out there to avoiding puppies from puppy farms (like this one). Ending up with a puppy from a puppy farm increases demand for puppies bred in deplorable conditions and sentences female dogs to a lifetime of having litter after litter, each one taken away from them. Additionally, your chances of having a sickly puppy or one with behavioural problems rises exponentially. You can read more about puppy farming here.

Who’ll do all of the hard work?

Puppies take a lot of work. Who’s going to spend the Christmas period taking puppy out every 30-60 minutes, cleaning up the accidents, making 4 meals a day for puppy, picking things up off the floor that your puppy will chew, and comforting children who don’t understand why the puppy is nipping them or chewing the new toys that Santa brought them? It’s not many people’s idea of a perfect Christmas!

Puppies are not puppies for long!

Christmas puppies, as with all puppies, don’t waste much time growing up. By 6-8 months of age (just 4 months after you bring your puppy home), you’ll have a dog who has the size and appearance of an adult dog, and who acts like an adolescent. According to figures from the RSPCA over 600 pets were abandoned over the festive period in 2015. But the real peak in animal neglect occurred 6 months later. By then the Christmas puppies had become summer adolescents. Adolescent dogs can be really hard work. But many Christmas puppies don’t even make it to the summer- the reality of having a peeing, pooing, barking, nipping puppy often hits home a lot sooner, and shelters always report an increase in puppies being handed in the weeks following the festive period.

Are you prepared for a significant ongoing financial commitment?

Who else finds it depressing looking at their bank account figures in January? Now imagine you’ll have to shell out for vaccines (I haven’t priced these but I’m guessing you’ll be paying E80-E100 each vaccine visit), puppy classes (E100-E150), dog food, leads, harnesses. Does everyone in the household go to school or work? Add dog walkers or daycare arrangements to that too. I read recently that over an average lifespan of 15 years, a dog will cost you £10,000-£20,000.

It’s a gift with a lot of responsibility attached!

Christmas puppies are usually gifts. Does the recipient definitely want a puppy? Are they prepared for all of the responsibilities that come with a puppy? I had a client once whose husband had surprised her with a puppy. They also had an 18 month child and the husband worked away. She needed the added responsibility of a puppy like a hole in the head!

And please, please don’t buy puppies for children. Children cannot be expected to be responsible for another living being. It’s not fair on the child, and it’s not fair on the dog. An adult in the house needs to be willing to take responsibility for the dog (for the next 12-15 years) long after the kids may have lost interest of moved out. Of course it’s fine if the children want to help out in a supervised capacity. You can read more on dogs and children here.

Is it really the best time?

Christmas is chaotic for most of us. Do you know what a baby dog, who’s just been taken away from his mother and siblings and placed in a new and potentially frightening environment definitely doesn’t need in their first couple of weeks??? The excitement of Christmas. They do not need to have a multitude of (perhaps tipsy) visitors cooing over them and handling them. They do not need new owners who have to keep leaving the house for their next festive engagement. They do not need excitable children running around. Rather, they need calmness, stability and time (and up to 20 hours sleep a day) to slowly get used to their new life in a way they can cope with.

What about a Christmas rescue dog?

Thinking of adopting an older dog instead? Always commendable to choose a dog in need, but unless you’re a Christmas recluse, I’d still recommend holding out until a calmer time. As with puppies, settling into a new home can be difficult for a rescue dog. Rescue dogs are often really exhausted from the stress they’ve had to deal with, and some need weeks of just sleeping. They need their new owners to have time to just be with them. As with puppies, they need calmness and stability and time! Expecting them to deal with the excitement of Christmas as soon as they arrive is a big ask.

So if you really want a puppy, why not clear some time in your calendar during spring (as an added bonus, spring/summer puppies are often easier to toilet train than winter ones as they tend to find going out in the warmer weather less objectionable), take your time to find a reputable breeder and to research the breed of dog that will be most suited to your lifestyle. If you’re thinking of getting the dog for someone else, why not tell them of your intentions, and get them this wonderful DVD about caring for a puppy as a stocking filler, and enjoy Christmas without the added worry of a new furry arrival!


My new book ‘Office Dogs; The Manual’ is now available to pre-order on Amazon. Find it here!



Creating an Enriched Environment for your Dog

When I was doing my Education with Turid, enriched environments were one of the first things we learned about. An enriched environment is basically an area that’s been set up to stimulate the dog’s senses- things to look at, sniff, touch, investigate, climb on, etc. The dog should be left to interact with the enriched environment without any input from the humans and be free to walk away when they want to.

I’ll admit, I was sceptical… it sounded almost too easy to be true. Would putting out random stuff for a dog to investigate really make a difference to their behaviour? Well, 18 months later, at the end of our course, we all had to present a project. Some of my fellow students had been working in shelters, and for their projects had put Turid’s methods into practice in the shelters, including the enriched environment, and recorded their findings. A lot of the dogs these people were working with had real issues- some were reactive to other dogs, some were reactive to people, some were just incredibly stressed or shut down. The changes they reported back were incredible. The dogs became calmer, and more focused and their behaviour improved.


Shelter dog Sheena

A shelter dog (courtesy of Caroline Lewis) unwinding in an enriched environment.

So if I wasn’t convinced before, I certainly was then. Often, we’re reluctant to try the more simple things, especially for complex problems. We think ‘that won’t work for my dog’, and we don’t try, or we give up too soon. But if enriched environments can help shelter dogs, often some of the most stressed and ‘difficult’ dogs in our society, there’s no reason not to try them with our own dogs.


When to use an enriched environment

Dogs are naturally curious creatures, so really an enriched environment is a great idea for any dog. Putting out new things will pique their curiosity, and as they amble around investigating they’ll be using their brains and developing confidence. And of course, it’s interesting, in the same way as browsing your favourite shop or discovering a new place and seeing new things is for us.

Bad weather day? Dog on restricted exercise after an injury? It’s a great way to alleviate boredom! You don’t need to go anywhere, you just need to find new things to put in the same place.

Enriched environments are also particularly useful with dogs who are scared or stressed. It’s a great way of providing mental stimulation without subjecting them to walks or places they might find stressful or scary. Also, because there’s no human input once the environment has been created, the dogs’ confidence can grow. They’re making decisions and thinking for themselves. They have choice, an essential component for overcoming fear. They’re getting practice at encountering strange or new objects in a safe space, which they can leave at any time.

With dogs who are scared or stressed, they may initially have very little interest in investigating. They may constantly look to their owner for reassurance. They may find the enriched environment overwhelming and leave very quickly. That’s absolutely fine. Just try again a few days later. And then a few days later. You can time your dog to see if they begin to get more confident/more interested/more relaxed.

For dogs who are over-excited or lacking focus, environmental enrichment can teach them to slow down and begin to engage with their environment. Once they slow down, they can begin to think before they act. They’ll be using their noses, and sniffing slows the heart rate, calming them down (read more about sniffing here). As with fearful or stressed dogs, it may take some time before they’re relaxed enough to really engage with things. That’s fine too, stick with it!


Tips for creating an enriched environment

  • Don’t use anything that could injure your dog;
  • Don’t use anything that you wouldn’t want your dog to pee on or destroy (they don’t tend to, but if you suddenly have to leap up and try to get something from your dog you’ll be undermining the object of the exercise);
  • Your enriched environment can be inside or outside;
  • Your dog should be off-lead and free to move towards/away from things as they wish;
  • Change things up each time you create an enriched environment. Things will lose appeal once they’ve been thoroughly investigated. Have lots of things to rotate, introduce new things when you can, or lend your items to friends so they come back smelling different;
  • Don’t distract your dog. Don’t praise them, don’t stroke them, don’t call them away, just leave them to it;
  • Let them leave once they’re ready to- no pressure, no targets. They may wander away and come back, or they may leave and lie down. Just let your dog lead
  • All that investigating is more work than you’d imagine- when your dog is finished with the enriched environment, they’ll probably be very tired. Make sure they have time to rest!


Things to include

There’s no recipe for an enriched environment. Just use your imagination! Kids can be really good at coming up with novel ideas. Here are just a few suggestions to start you off:


Things that smell interesting Things that feel interesting Things that look interesting Things that move/make noises
  •  Laundry
  •  Other dogs’ toys/bedding
  • Things that smell of other animals- sheep’s wool, animal skins, horse’s brushes. I once got some used hamster bedding from the local petshop!
  •  Safe plants and herbs
  • Sticks from the park
  •  Hay bales


  • Tarpaulin
  •  Sandpit
  •  Soft furnishings
  • Leaves in autumn
  •  Dried seaweed
  •  Hay


  • Traffic cones
  • Teddy bears
  • Black sack with clothes or other items in
  • Household items- vacuum cleaner, drying rack
  • Cans/tins suspended from strings
  • Toy buggies or carts
  • Wind chimes







Here’s a video of Seren, a 4 year old Duck Tolling Retriever, exploring an enriched environment (with thanks to Kirsty Grant for the video and Seren’s human, C. Holborrow!).

Have you any good ideas for things to include in an enriched environment?? Do leave a comment if you have!


My new book ‘Office Dogs; The Manual’ is now available to pre-order on Amazon. Find it here!


The Gift of a Growl


‘He growled at me the other day!’

This is something I hear commonly from clients. It is always uttered with a tone of shocked and offended indignance which would lead you to believe


Ok, so it mightn’t look pretty, but growling is a wonderful warning system, and a really clear piece of communication which should never be punished.

that their dog had done something truly awful.But growling is a normal, natural, functional part of the dog’s vocabulary, and one we misunderstand terribly. Almost invariably, when people tell me that their dog has growled at them, they see the growl as a threat. An indication that the dog wishes to harm them. The irony is that a growl is exactly the reverse of this! Dogs growl to avoid conflict.

Dogs don’t speak the way we do, but that’s not to say they don’t have a complex system of communication. Their communication comprises body language, sounds, and odour.

Their range of sounds includes whining, whimpering, barking, howling, ‘chatting’, yelping, and of course, growling. As a highly social species, one of the primary purposes of communication for a dog is to avoid conflict. Growling is no exception. A growl says ‘I don’t want to fight, but I do want you to know I’m not comfortable with this’.

A growl rarely comes out of nowhere. If a dog is feeling uncomfortable with a situation, you can nearly always spot it in their body language first- they freeze, they look away, they show the whites of their eyes. They might lick their lips or yawn. However, we humans often miss these signals, and when we do, the dog is forced to escalate their behaviour, and a lot of the time, nobody hears the dog until they do growl.

And a growl is a wonderful gift. The growl itself is not an act of aggression, it is the only way the dog can make itself heard when all of his other signals have been ignored. If you punish a growl, you are disabling a really useful warning system. If a dog’s body language is ignored, and his voice is punished, he’s only left with one way of communicating- his teeth.

So, if your dog growls at you:

  1. Stop what you were doing and give the dog space;
  2. If you really need your dog to do something, try and think of a less confrontational way of asking him to do it. For instance, if he’s eating something he shouldn’t, he may be happy to leave it if you offer him the opportunity to do a treat search elsewhere;
  3. Come up with a plan for dealing with similar situations in the future. If your dog growled because you tried to move him from the couch, perhaps you could do some work around training an ‘off’ for future use. If the issue was food he shouldn’t eat, perhaps you can teach a ‘leave’;
  4. Question your own motivation. Often people are moving a dog or acting in a threatening way because they’ve been told they need to show their dog who’s boss. This sort of thinking is based on outdated theories and will only serve to damage your relationship with your dog and lead to more serious problems down the line. Don’t take things from your dog or make him move for the sake of proving you can.
  5. Most importantly, don’t punish your dog in any way. You can read more on the pitfalls of punishment here.

Don’t silence your dog. Don’t lose the gift of a growl.

Dogs and Maslow Part 5

Love and belonging is the next need on Maslow’s list. This relates to the need that humans have for a feeling of acceptance and belonging within their social groups.

One great similarity shared by dogs and humans is that both are social species, and I believe this need for love and belonging is as strong in dogs as it is in humans. Dogs are often acquired to meet the human need for love and belonging, but how good are we at meeting that same need in them?

So, as part of this need for love and belonging, let’s look at the dog’s need for company, to be understood when they try to communicate with us, and their need for love and care, bestowed in a responsible and beneficial way.


Dogs derive a sense of safety from being around others. For pet dogs, ‘others’ are often their humans. For village dogs, feral dogs or wild dogs, ‘others’ will usually be other dogs. Feral dogs tend to live in groups of 2-6 dogs. Being in groups mean that dogs can relax more, and don’t feel solely responsible for being on alert for any danger.

Dogs are social sleepers, and social eaters, and being alone is one of the greatest challenges faced by pet dogs. A lot of dogs sleep in the kitchen or utility room, far away from their humans. Many people then go out to work, leaving their dogs alone for 10+ hours a day. For a dog in this situation, they are essentially in isolation for 18 hours of the day. This is a real challenge for animals that have spent most of their evolutionary history in groups.

It is no surprise that a lot of dogs suffer from separation anxiety. Unfortunately, common wisdom about teaching dogs to be alone has been that they ‘just have to get used to it’. For years, the wisdom was that when you did leave your puppy or dog alone, and they cried, or barked, or howled, that they should be left until they were quiet. However, when a puppy cries, their mother will always attend to them. In the wild, puppies stay with their mum for 9 months, so when we take home a puppy at 8 or 9 or 10 weeks, we really do need to step into the role of Mum. When a puppy is distressed they have a biological need and expectation that their mother will come. The most recent studies I have read on the matter suggest that contrary to common belief, dogs that are left to ‘cry it out’ are in fact more likely to suffer from separation anxiety.

So how can we manage this problem?

  • Consider whether you need to leave your dog in a different part of the house overnight- you can potentially half the amount of time your dog has to be alone if you let him/her choose where to sleep.
  • Don’t leave your dog in a state of distress. You need to teach your dog to handle being alone. Start leaving them for a few seconds with a really tasty bone or chew, and build the time slowly, at a level they can handle. If you do this, they shouldn’t reach a point where they need to cry or howl, but if they do, remember that they need you to be their parent, and ignoring their calls isn’t going to make them feel more secure.
  • We can also make sure that our dogs have opportunities to have a rich social life with canine friends outside of the home! Puppy classes and social walks are a great way to offer our dogs these opportunities.



Here, Leo looks away, licks his lips and lifts a paw- these are all calming signals that show that he’s finding my behaviour a little worrying! I didn’t notice at the time, but it’s clear as day in the photo!

Although so many of us share our lives and homes with dogs, we often don’t communicate very effectively with them. We sometimes interact in quite a verbal way with our dogs, despite the fact that our common language is body language. Dogs have quite a developed system of communicating through body language. They use this with other dogs, and try (often in vain) to use it with us. I see so many cases of humans missing or misinterpreting the signals that their dogs are giving out.

Turid Rugaas has written a book called ‘On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals’ which provides an invaluable guide to anyone who wants to better understand what their dogs are trying to communicate to them and to each other. Below is a loose overview of some of the most commonly used signals that you might see your dog use. Please bear in mind that these all need to be taken in context- a dog yawning while relaxed on the couch after a long walk is probably tired; a dog who is yawning as you stare at it or hug it, is more likely to be displaying a calming signal.

  • Head turn;
  • Turning away;
  • Lip licking;
  • Blinking;
  • Yawning.

These are all signs that the dog might use to diffuse a potentially aggressive situation by indicating their good intent, or to let us or another dog know that they’re not entirely comfortable. One of my dog’s suffers from corns, and whenever I try and put moisturiser on her paws or touch them to check on the corns, she will look away and lick her lips, to let me know that my interference with her painful foot is making her uncomfortable.

You may also notice your dog curving as they approach or pass other dogs. This is a non confrontational way of approaching, but we often deprive our dogs of this opportunity by holding them on a short lead or forcing them to pass other dogs on a narrow pathway. Dogs that have under-developed social skills or reactivity issues can be aided by your encouraging this curve as they approach other dogs.

Another oft-misunderstood part of the dog’s repertoire of communication is the ‘whale eye’ look that is often misinterpreted as guilt or shame, but is in fact a fear response to your anger.

This is just one part of the equation. We also commonly use body language in a way that dogs can find quite confusing and/or threatening, such as:

  • bending over them;
  • approaching with out-stretched hands;
  • head patting (a primate thing- dogs never pat each other on the head!);
  • hugging (another primate thing that dogs can find restrictive or frightening, especially if done by someone they don’t know and trust);
  • calling them forward while standing square on (a ‘stay away’ stance as far as they’re concerned);
  • approaching straight on (an intimidating approach);
  • putting our faces close to theirs and making straight-on eye contact (often perceived as acts of aggression).

This sort of thing will often be met by the dog using some of the calming signals mentioned above- looking away, turning away, lip licking etc to try and discourage you!

Keep an eye on how you’re interacting with your dog, watch how he or she reacts to you, and try to listen to what they’re telling you with their body language. Being better able to understand your dog will definitely improve your relationship and will contribute to your dog feeling safer.


I like to think that most people love their dogs. However… perhaps a better question to pose is do we love our dogs in a way that benefits them? When another living being is entirely dependant on you, loving them comes with a lot of responsibility.

In her book about her journey with a rescued street dog from Romania, Lisa Tenzin-Dolma sums up the responsibility of having a dog:

‘Taking care of another living creature, whether human or non-human, necessitates accepting responsibility for their wellbeing and safety. The very expression ‘take care of’ indicates of the process of caring for, looking after, concerning ourselves with, nurturing, and helping that soul reach full potential. It’s a term of selfless love; or rather it should be. Whether our care is extended to children, family members, friends in need, those we are employed to help professionally, or non-human charges, it has to be unconditional. Putting conditions on caring taints and ultimately undermines the relationship.

Choosing to take responsibility involves accepting the likelihood that there will be a degree of sacrifice. Because it involves doing what is best for the other party, this can result in making decisions that cause us inconvenience, wither minor or major…’

In the above extract, Lisa Tenzin- Dolma speaks of helping a soul to reach full potential. Training a dog to be a robot and to blindly follow commands does not allow that dog to reach full potential. To love them in a way that benefits them, we need to be parents to our dogs, to guide, to protect but also to allow them become their own person (if you will!), able to make their own decisions and to think for themselves. We need to give them the confidence to explore the world, to be curious and to enjoy life. We need to think about what they need from us, and not just what we’d like from them. We need to be reasonable in our expectations, and recognise and enjoy the differences between dogs and humans.

And if we’re going to love our dogs unconditionally, responsibly, and in a way that benefits them, I suppose a lot of people will want to know if they love us too, or if they just see us as food dispensing, shelter-providing, chauffeurs?

Science appears to be proving that they do. Darwin was of the opinion that animals experience the same emotions as humans, but to a lesser extent. For a long time, the scientific community believed that dogs were just pavlovian machines, learning that one thing was a consequence of another. Then it became generally accepted that they experienced primary emotions, and now it is becoming apparent that they most likely experience an entire range of emotions, and also have a theory of mind.

If their enthusiastic greetings, constant willingness to forgive, and endless displays of affection were not enough to convince us of dogs’ love of their humans, various studies have shown that dogs’ brains release oxytocin, the bonding chemical, when they look at their humans. Gregory Berns, in his studies on canine emotional responses, found that the caudate of the brain (the reward centre) lit up when dogs are presented with the smell of a human family member, to a much greater extent than when presented with the smells of non-family members or other dogs.

Because we are generally not entirely dependent on our dogs, their love of us may have less responsibility attached to it, but all the same they love us with an endurance and consistency that many people would struggle to match!

So, there you have it! Some reflections on what is involved in providing dogs with the love and sense of belonging they need and deserve, and the indicators that they love us too.

Dogs and Children

Keeping your Child Safe and your Dog Happy

1 in 6 people admitted to hospital for a day or more, as a result of a dog bite, is a child under the age of 10. In 2012, over half of these children needed plastic surgery, and over a quarter needed speciality facial/oral surgery. At least three times as many people are bitten by dogs they know than by strange dogs.

Many children love dogs and play with them the way they play with a Teddy bear. However, children can be quite frightening for dogs. They are often not good at reading dogs’ body language, not sympathetic to how the dog might be feeling, and prone to making sudden, jerky movements, and high pitched noises- things that can make a dog uneasy. Not to mention the grabbing, poking and pulling that they’re wont to do! People often tell me how great their dogs are with children. 9 times out of 10 they follow it with a description of the things they let their child/children do to their dog; ‘he lets them pull out of his ears and tail, and climb all over him’. Even if nothing ever goes wrong, it saddens me that a dog should be subjected to that. ‘Oh he doesn’t mind’, dog owners often say. This makes me wonder how they would expect the dog to let them know if he did mind. Most people know very little about canine body language. Warning signals such as ‘whale eyes’ (see below) don’t set alarm bells ringing for people. Lip-licking doesn’t set off alarm bells. Yawning doesn’t set off alarm bells. The dog looking away or even walking away doesn’t set off alarm bells. For most dogs, in most households, the only parts of their repertoire of communication that humans recognise are growling, snapping and biting. These signals are usually punished. So, your average dog is in a situation where his more subtle signals are ignored, and the stronger ones are punished. What choice have most dogs but to put up with the children swinging out of them? What hope have they got of someone intervening on their behalf, when as far as most humans are concerned, everything is fine until ‘out of the blue’ the dog growls, snaps or bites? So… what can you do to make sure that your dog/child doesn’t form part of these frightening bite-injury statistics? Let’s take a look at some practical tips to ensure that interactions between dogs and children are enjoyable for both parties.

  1. The number one rule where dogs and children are concerned is that the two should never, ever be left alone. This is so that you can protect both parties from inappropriate interactions. Even if your dog is immaculately trained and has always been ‘fine’ with children, this might be the day he has an earache, a toothache or terrible back pain, and having said ear pulled, tooth poked, or back climbed upon, might be the final straw.
  2. The people who are supervising the interaction should learn to read basic canine body language. There is little point in supervising child and dog if you’re not in a position to understand when the dog is beginning to feel uncomfortable and to intervene before things go wrong. Look out for the following signs:
  • Whale eyes– this is when you can see the whites of the dog’s eyes, a sign of fear;
  • Lip-licking– dogs often lick their lips when they’re feeling nervous, unsure or uncomfortable;
  • Lowered ears;
  • Yawning– yawning is another signal dogs use to diffuse tense situations, and another indicator that they’re not entirely comfortable;
  • Looking away;
  • Moving or attempting to move away;
  • Backward moving body language– weight transferring to the back part of the body and away from whatever the dog would like to get away from.

If you’d like to read more about canine body language, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas is a very good place to start. There is also a brilliant ‘ladder of aggression’ available at: Bear in mind that if the dog has been used to having his more subtle cues ignored, there is a good chance that he will have given up using them, and that when it all gets too much for him, he will leap straight to growling, snapping or biting- the only thing that seems to get a response. You can help by imitating these calming signals (yawning, lip-licking, slow blinking) yourself. The dog will most likely respond, and you can then react accordingly, teaching the dog that you can actually understand the more subtle cues.

  1. Educate the children who are in the dog’s life. There are some great resources available to help teach children how to interact with dogs in an appropriate way. You can use these to educate the child in a non-confrontational way (especially useful if the children aren’t yours!). Sophia Yin made some really good information sheets, which I distribute to any of my clients who have children, grandchildren, or regular visitors who are children. These sheets are available at:

  1. Lead by example. Unfortunately, we live in a world where animals are often not afforded the respect they deserve. If we lead by example and treat animals as the sentient, intelligent beings that they are, and show respect for their feelings, children will follow suit.
  2. Avoid punishing your dog. Dogs that have been grabbed, shook or hit, are much more likely to be wary of being approached by children, who often approach with outstretched arms. If your dog is confident and had a life of positive experiences, he is much more likely to react well to the occasional upset.
  3. If you are getting a puppy, try to ensure he has lots of positive experiences with children early on in life. I emphasise positive, as a lot of people have missed this crucial aspect of socialisation. They think that socialising involves throwing the dog head-first into a myriad of situations with a myriad of people so that he gets used to it. What’s actually required is ensuring the puppy experiences different situations and people at a level he is comfortable with and in a way that is enjoyable and pleasant for him. Having small children gently stroke and talk to a puppy while offering tasty morsels, to a degree that the puppy is comfortable with, is socialisation. Letting them pounce on him and squeal and pass him around is setting him up to associate children with scary experiences.
  4. Always make sure the dog has somewhere to go to escape from the children, and any noise they’re making. This might be a bed behind the couch or in a quiet room that children aren’t allowed into but that the dog can always access.
  5. Remember that dogs are slow to show pain, and there’s a good chance your dog won’t let you know if he’s suffering. One of my dogs had root abscesses on both of his lower canines, and never let on. Even the most patient dog in the world, who has tolerated having his ears pulled by children for years, might one day be suffering from an earache. What would you do if you were suffering from an earache and somebody grabbed your ear? Your dog can’t politely inform you that his ear is somewhat painful and he’d rather it wasn’t pulled, and may feel that the only way he can create space between himself and the little person pulling his ear is to snap or bite.
  6. Be aware of how your dog might be feeling- a dog that is tired or stressed or feeling unwell is likely to be less patient- just like ourselves.
  7. Never tell a dog off for growling. A growling dog is doing you a great service by warning you that he doesn’t like whatever is happening. If you tell him off for growling enough, he’ll learn that growling doesn’t work, and try the next rung on the ladder- snapping or biting.

Having said all that, dogs and children can be great friends (with the appropriate education and supervision!). But remember, your dog is relying on you to be his advocate. Listen to your dog. And always bear in mind- past performance is no guarantee of future results! Don’t let your dog’s good track record with children allow him to end up in situations in which he might be scared or uncomfortable.

Puppy Classes- Coming Soon!

I’m planning to start puppy classes in January 2015!

Your puppy will:

  • have nice positive experiences with other puppies and people;
  • learn to settle around other dogs;
  • learn road safety;
  • learn some basic exercises such as sit-stay and recall;
  • use his nose to do some basic scentwork.

You will:

  • learn about caring for your puppy;
  • learn about toilet training;
  • learn how to reduce nipping;
  • Have the chance to ask any questions you have about your puppy;
  • learn about nutrition, neutering, stress, etc in your dog.

4 puppies per class. Classes will last 45 minutes, and courses will run for 6 weeks. Price and exact location to be confirmed. Get in touch to express interest and to be updated with further information! 🙂

Dogs and Dominance

Digging the dirt on ‘Dominance’ in Dogs

The role of ‘rank’ in human/canine relations relates to the belief that dogs, as descendants of the wolf, must be pack animals. A whole school of training has emerged from this notion, which revolves around the idea that in order to train one’s dog, he must be constantly shown that he is at the bottom of the ‘pack’, and that this should be achieved by treating your dog as the ‘Alpha’ of the pack would treat his subordinates, for example, by restricting his movement around the ‘den’, not letting him walk through doors ahead of you, not allowing him eat before you. If this ‘rank reduction’ is not consistently reinforced, it is argued that the dog will attempt to dominate the human and claim the position of ‘Alpha dog’ for himself. Followers of this belief then attribute any undesirable dog behaviours to the dog having been allowed to forge an unduly high opinion of himself and his position in the ‘pack’.

While a lot of dog trainers did and do still follow this school of thought, recent research has unearthed many flaws in the hypothesis, and the world of dog training (or at least, the bodies which govern dog training) is moving towards an altogether more enlightened, and kinder system of training.

The use of ‘rank reduction’ in dog training dates back to the 1960s[1], and since then has been promoted by many trainers- including John Fisher, (who subsequently reviewed his thoughts on the matter). In his book ‘Why Does my Dog…?’[2] he says that dogs have:

‘…the instincts of a wolf, the species from which our dogs are descended, and still govern their behaviour.’[3]

He discusses how a dog views its position in the family and asserts:

‘The dog considers itself to be part of the unit, or pack. It categorises each member of the pack in terms of rank relevant to itself. … In most cases that I deal with, the dog views its role as being number two or three or, in some cases, number one.’[4]

He goes on to outline how humans have, in recent years especially, inadvertently reinforced the dog’s opinion of its place within the pack by allowing it to move freely around the house, sleep in our bedrooms, and look down at us from a height (such as the top of the stairs). He suggests that the way of combating this is to embark on a programme of ‘rank reversal’[5], involving not letting the dog walk through doors ahead of you, not allowing him on the furniture, eating before him, denying him access to ‘key areas’ of the house, making the dog move out of your way when necessary, not allowing him demand attention, maintaining control of his toys and so forth.

However, the thinking on dog training has progressed significantly over recent years, and Fisher himself was to come to the opinion that the pack theory was deeply flawed towards the end of his life. In the editor’s note of the revised and updated edition of Think Dog, Pam McKinnon writes of him:

‘…He understood that while Pack Theory was revolutionary when first introduced, it was lacking. He accepted and publicly stated that it was no longer and appropriate way to think about dogs.’[6].

The Pack Theory has been sharply criticised by a number of other people too, including Ian Dunbar, who in the foreword to Barry Eaton’s ‘Dominance in Dogs; Fact or Fiction’, says of it

‘The ‘thinking’ behind the dominance myth and the Spartan, boot camp, rank-reduction program is silly to the point of hilarious. Sadly, downright silly thinking becomes extremely serious when dogs are neglected and mistreated as a result. Indeed, many unsuspecting dog owners are bullied by misguided trainers to abuse their dogs under the guise of ‘training’.

The first aspect of the theory that is put to bed by those arguing against its validity, is the misconception that wolves live in a linear hierarchy, wherein one wolf or pair of wolves, fights their way to the top, and maintains that position of power by dominating the other pack members. The studies on which this supposition was based were carried out on ‘packs’ of wolves that had been created by bringing together wolves from different zoos. However, wolves in the wild do not form packs like this. Rather, wolf packs can more accurately be described as families. David Mech describes these families in his 2008 article ‘Whatever happened to the term Alpha dog’[7], and explains that in the wild a pair of wolves will have one litter, which may stay with them long enough to help with the next litter, before leaving to start their own family. As such, there is a natural sense of respect and deference among the young to their parents, who guide and lead their young on hunting expeditions.

Second of all, a lot of the behaviours put forward as ‘wolf behaviours’, are in fact, no such thing. A prime example of this is the ‘always eat before your dog rule’, based on the supposition that in a pack of wolves, the Alpha will eat first. Mech, in his article ‘Alpha status, dominance and division of labour in wolf packs’, describes in detail how the distribution of food is decided:

‘For example, with large prey such as adult moose (Alces alces), pack members of all ranks (ages) gather around a carcass and feed simultaneously, with no rank privilege apparent (Mech 1966; Haber 1977); however, if the prey is smaller, like a musk ox calf, dominant animals (breeders) may feed first and control when subordinates feed (Mech 1988; National Geographic 1988).Similarly, pups are subordinate to both parents and to older siblings, yet they are fed preferentially by the parents, and even by their older (dominant) siblings (Mech et al.1999). On the other hand, parents both dominate older offspring and restrict their food intake when food is scarce, feeding pups instead.’[8]

This goes to show that the default position is not that the so-called Alpha eats first, but that there is a rather complex system in play that would be very difficult for humans to recreate. Furthermore, it is clear that the lowest members of the pack (if you will), that is the youngest ones, are at times fed preferentially. So, in trying to replicate ‘pack’ dynamics by feeding one’s dog last, you are in fact, doing the reverse.

So if the dynamic of a wolf pack is not based on dominance, on what is it based? Co-operation, it would seem. Coppinger and Coppinger in their book ‘Dogs’ make the interesting observation that ‘wolves don’t always pack. Some populations never pack.’[9] This begs the question of why some wolves pack and some don’t. Eaton puts forward an explanation for this, suggesting that wolves pack to enhance their chances of survival, rather than because of any genetic predisposition.[10] The cooperation of a group of wolves is required to hunt large prey, and packing could be described as a survival strategy rather than an evolutionary absolute. What does this mean for dogs? Coppinger and Coppinger point out that the earliest dogs (or ‘village dogs’) that evolved to live off human waste, no longer needed to pack. Cooperation is not required to scavenge. In fact, a pack would just create competition. So, in summary, wolves don’t always pack, and from their earliest guise as dogs, it seems to have been a behaviour that has been absent in dogs.

Another crucial point in the disambiguation of the wolf/dog argument is that it is not strictly true to say that dogs evolved from wolves. Coppinger and Coppinger explain that rather, wolf and dog had a common ancestor, now extinct,[11] so the very assertion that dogs, as descendants of wolves, are pack animals, is fundamentally flawed.

We might ask at this point, what does it matter if dogs are not strictly speaking evolved from wolves, and so what if wolf packs don’t behave exactly as we believed… this method of rank reduction seems to have worked for a lot of people. One could point to Cesar Milan’s success for instance. Surely there is something in it? O’Heare points out that there is

‘a lack of empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of social dominance theories to changing behaviour’.[12] He suggests that the reason that dominance practices sometimes appear to work is that the assertion of dominance itself may be aversive, and the dog therefore tries to avoid the situation in future. Aversive training techniques, however, have been shown to have a number of negative side-effect, which as O’Heare states, include learned helplessness, aggression and counter-control.[13]This brings us back to Ian Dunbar’s point. He is quoted on the back of Eaton’s ‘Dominance and Dogs’ as saying that the ‘insidious rank reduction program’ is ‘an arduous task for owners to make their poor dogs’ lives a misery’. First of all, why on earth would anyone want to bully and intimidate a beloved pet if there is an alternative method? Second of all, the increased understanding of how dogs learn has seen reward based training become a more popular method of training dogs. Karen Pryor has written extensively about clicker training, a kind, fair, positive-reinforcement based method. This method is not only kinder, but also an extremely efficient method of training a dog. Associations governing dog training, such as the Association of Pet Dog Trainers UK, dismiss dominance theories:

‘Ideas, especially those about “dominance”, are completely disconnected from the sciences of ethology and animal learning.’[14]

I am of the opinion that given the large body of evidence contradicting the theories that form the very core of rank reduction training programmes, it is remarkable that anyone with an interest in dogs would continue to buy into the theory. However, hopefully the more modern thinking will continue to disseminate and result in a better world for dogs and their humans alike.

[1] Eaton, B., Dominance in Dogs; Fact or Fiction, (Washington 2008), p.1.

[2] Fisher, J., Why does my dog…? (London 1991).

[3] Fisher, J., Why does my dog…? (London 1991), pp.26, 27.

[4] Fisher, J., Why does my dog…? (London 1991), p.18.

[5] Fisher, J. Why does my dog..? (London 1991), P. 174.

[6] Fisher, J. Think Dog(London 2012)

[7] (accessed 29 Jan 2013)

[8] Mech, L. David. 1999. Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:1196-1203.

[9] Coppinger & Coppinger, Dogs, p.81.

[10] Eaton, B., Dominance and Dogs, p. 22.

[11] Coppinger & Coppinger, Dogs, p. 273, 274.

[12] O’Heare, J., Dominance Theory and Dogs, p.73

[13] O’Heare, J., Dominance Theory and Dogs, p.75.

[14] Accessed on the 29 Jan. 13.